Our guest blogger Barbara Chandler writes with her customary élan about her recent visit to The Hub for the opening of Our Journey.
“This used to be a seed warehouse. It still is!” – that’s the motto of The Hub in Sleaford. inscribed in gold on a leather plaque. The building, you see, which opened in 1939, indeed used to be a warehouse for cleaning and sorting peas, but since 2003, has been seeding creativity in Lincolnshire and way beyond. It’s now, of course, the home of our own Design-Nation, taking a showcase for high-level craft away from the frenetic capital to feed a growing demand out of town.
Recently re-vamped, The Hub building is light (indeed sunny, if you’re lucky), spacious and full of life. Not least on the first floor where an original floor has been removed to create a double-height gallery. Here you’ll currently find Our Journey, a celebratory show originally planned to mark 20 years of Design-Nation – but that’s more like 22 now, thanks (well, no thank you) to lockdown. On parade are 25 makers who have lavished all their skills on a show already flagged as a “must see” by the craft cognoscenti.
I thought I’d get myself up there for the evening opening, and make a bit of a day of it – and oh, it was so worthwhile. When I arrived at lunchtime, some artist-makers had already been, installed and gone, but others were still hard at work. There was Anna Thomson, perilously up a ladder, attending lovingly to her china pendants. Their immaculate geometry (achieved with some help from 3D printing) looked fine to us below, but Anna had perceived flaws – “and everything must be absolutely perfect – anyway what if someone buys one?” As well they might, as this clever lighting fits so well into a home. The design looks elegant on its own (suspended alongside a bed, for example) or dramatic in groups. Shades can fit an existing pendant, or hang from a smart braided flex with chrome fittings. Anna cleverly varies the clay bodies – for example vitrified porcelain gives a warm glow, whilst bone china is whiter and more translucent.
Across the way was Rachel Fitzpatrick, all the way from County Down, twisting, looping and tucking a giant cascade of hand-dyed pink Velcro strips, and making full use of the lofty ceiling. She and her art were just oozing with joy: “I’m so happy to be here!”
Michaela McMillan introduced her “angels,” each an intricate assemble of found objects, toys, models, discarded jewellery, feathers, stones and more, stitched and glued together, trapped beneath a glass dome. Fittingly, she posed for my photograph, framed by glittering wings she’d made for the wall. Michaela told me that this, her Chorus of Angels, was a response to the first year of the pandemic. For example, Angel Harmony shows Help and Friendship, and Angel Adorn Offers the Order of Strength. They are the largest pieces she’s ever made.
“I’ve had numerous hordes of treasures given to me, particularly through the pandemic,” she confided, “from a single dead butterfly found on a windowsill in a spare bedroom to a bountiful 2 kg box of broken jewellery and toys.” Most exciting was a box of vintage cake decorations from the 70’s “wonderfully kitsch and full of character.” Michaela is always on the lookout for glass domes – “they are all second-hand and are either donated, or found on eBay, in charity shops or at car boot sales.”
Glowing gently was one of my favourite pieces – the magical Felt Moon light, an impressive circle by Myra Hutton, with striking black frame and electrical design by Nick Rawcliffe. And for her Natural collection, Julie Vernon had set her mosaics in handmade circles of waxed birch to contain and shield their restless strands made with cut unglazed porcelain tiles, tumbled stones and found materials. And super-elegant in a coat that matched her woven distressed denim “banners” was Momoka Gomi, who was a kimono-dresser in Japan at the age of 17. Jan Bowman had filled a small room-within-a-room with a multiplicity of woven pieces fronted by an intriguing sculpture of wood and stones.
Lizzie Kimbley had come from Norfolk with her immaculately-woven wall panels, presented in chic frames. She was, she told me, celebrating waste – “indeed the beauty of waste – I want people to realise the value of every scrap of material.” She had used bags of warp ends, saved from other work over many months, if not years, augmented by industry waste-yarn and clothing offcuts. These were transformed into fine braids with infinite skill and patience. Such delicate threads, so strong a story.
Sustainability, of course, is a swelling preoccupation for our member. And the generous space allowed the emotive telling of some truly poignant stories. Here was Jacky Oliver with Catch, carefully adjusting her many hand-cut, etched and pierced metal “boats” suspended on fine wires. They are a protest against the intensive fishing of our oceans. Her work is informed by extensive research. “We are simply taking too much fish out of the sea,” she said, re-positioning another piece. “This is either a labour of love or insanity,” she added cheerfully – “but I do like to tell stories.”
I had seen some of Linda Bloomfield’s “lichen” pots before at Collect, just before lockdown, but here they had space truly to make an impact – and tell how air pollution is killing the lovely lichens of our natural world. Effectively set on a bed of evergreen twigs contained in a wooden box were a group of ceramic “boulders” drawing on Linda’s extensive research into textured glazes. But as you walk by, the lichen-like patterns diminish, until the end surfaces are simply plain, dark and barren – “because unless we dramatically improve our air quality our beautiful lichens will disappear.”
I so missed our development manager Liz Cooper, who’s been sitting out the pandemic, closeted in New Zealand due to family commitments. In person, Liz emanates positivity, creativity and drive, as all lucky enough to meet her know. And, undaunted, her spirit was vital everywhere we turned, helping to shape from across the oceans (oh internet the great enabler!), writing the catalogue (which is a juicy large format newspaper), plus excellent blog posts that expand on the show. Also on the exhibition team were Lesley Farrell and Marion Sander. I loved these curators’ expansion of the common notion of diversity. They explained that Design-Nation’s members are from all parts of the UK, from Devon to North Wales, from Northern Ireland to Aberdeenshire, from Lancashire to Sussex. “There are many women but also some men, and a great range of ages, sexualities, family circumstances and backgrounds.” Practices and materials are similarly diverse.
The curators had also put their own stamp on sustainability, making a show that minimises waste. New display furniture made locally is easily transportable and will cleverly adapt for future uses. The perspex used for titles is recycled from a previous 2008 exhibition, and plinths come from a show in 2018. (Motto: don’t throw anything away, pace Marie Kondo.) Durable cotton replaces plastic dust sheets, and mountboard replaces Foamex for info panels.
Then, suddenly, it was the opening itself, and the gallery quickly filled. I had been finishing my photography and – typically – had missed the drinks downstairs. Director Clare Edwards gave a charming speech, and artists popped up around the edges of the crowd to introduce their work.
I got the feeling that “our journey” was just beginning.
Our Journey continues at The Hub Sleaford until Sunday 24 April 2022. Opening hours and directions here.